/* Keywords and questions */
ASCII art. Written pictures, drawn words.
What's in this for the participant,
and what's brought to it
by participants? What remains when they leave?
/* What is Icontext? */
Icontext is a free space on the Web that
presents visitors with an open-ended interplay
of words and pictures. What you do with your
keyboard and mouse determines what appears on
the screen and what subsequent visitors see and read.
At its most basic level, Icontext is a hybrid of
telecommunication, drawing, and word processing
software. It sets up a fluid correspondence between
keystrokes and blocks of color. For example, when you
type "dog," the word "dog" appears, and so does a
series of three color blocks. Icontext also works
on other levels, allowing visitors to collaborate
with each other and to upload, archive, and reconfigure
/* What are icontexts? */
They are simultaneously icons and texts. Within Icontext, each letter
typed appears also as a colored pixel in the emerging icon, while
drawing a line leaves a parallel trail of letters. Not every
image is an interesting text and vice versa, but the Icontext software lets people
negotiate the balance (or imbalance) between image and text.
The "icontext" is the resulting document, which is simultaneously
an icon and a text.
/* How can a picture be a text? */
Icontext uses an XPM image file format
that lets keyboard characters signify colors. Each keyboard
character is associated with a color in the
color index. Icontexts are 50 pixels square, so there
are 2500 characters in each icontext. Each icontext contains
one hyperlink to another icontext, so that ideas of more
than 2500 characters can be built out of a sequence of
icontexts. Lastly, each icontext can be assigned a category.
Both the category and hyperlink can be edited by
anyone using the site--not only the author or original artist.
/* Why? */
Because, in a flexible system, people can express themselves creatively.
Because collaboration and communication produce surprising results.
Because the experience of Icontext changes constantly depending on
visitor participation. The productive (or counterproductive) feedback
generated in response to Icontext is what becomes Icontext.
/* What do people make? */
When given tools to collaborate (anonymously?) across the room or across
national borders, what will people make? If a fundamental reciprocity can be maintained--a balance of getting and giving--what emerges is undoubtedly unforeseen and potentially exciting. Visitors affect the organization of the icontexts as well as their individual contents through the act of linking and categorizing. This yields a structure that is malleable and influenced by the public.
One term for this largely uncharted process is collaborative filtering. There is a danger, as has been pointed out by Walker Art Center's Steve Dietz, that
collaborative filtering can "create a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy
in which the most-visited pages are...visited the most."
Balancing conservation and public control, Icontext provides many different
ways of locating icontexts. It retains all of them--keeping them in play,
even if they've been categorized as "trashy" or "offensive."
In contrast to recent American legislation mandating filtration in public
libraries, it is believed that software should not be used to conceal or
automate judgment. Software, through its framing of an interaction, can
affect the intensity with which visitors engage themselves in critical
decisions. Interfaces and software call forth particular behavior
patterns -- passive, contemplative, spastic, creative, etc. Icontext is
intended as an amusement and as a contribution to the ongoing consideration
of questions related to the public's role in the creative processes that
shape the Internet as it expands.